Words of passion and power from Antjie Krog

Antjie Krog. (Yunus Mohammed, Gallo Images)

Antjie Krog. (Yunus Mohammed, Gallo Images)

ANTJIE KROG AND THE POST-APARTHEID PUBLIC SPHERE – SPEAKING POETRY TO POWER by Anthea Garman (UKZN Press)

If sjamboks carried by marchers were just “symbols” until “they morphed into violent tools” as has been asserted in a recent article partly about the Open Stellenbosch march in early September, then now is the time for even those who thought they were paying attention to “Luister!” very carefully indeed.

One of the very first to ask us to listen was Antjie Krog and this book is a timely examination of her ­contribution to transformation and reconciliation. There may be many young people today who do not know who Krog is, despite the fact that she is one of the nation’s great women.

As a white Afrikaner poet, radio and print journalist, and writer, she was one of the foremost public intellectuals in the 1980s and subsequent decades – a remarkably powerful and passionate voice.

For many white people, her ­message was too strong, too uncompromising, and far too challenging. Now, in 2015, it is good to remember that people like Krog exist and that she has had, and might still have, enormous influence.

Garman is a professor of journalism at Rhodes University and her book looks not only at the political context of Krog’s writing, but also at how she fulfils the requirements for powerful witness, with reference to public intellectual Pierre Bourdieu and others. Happily, though it may have been written mainly for academia, it can be read by the common reader too as it is clear and mercifully free of jargon.

Better than just clear, it is often really elegant.
In describing the origin of her book, Garman says, inter alia, that it came out of her “own struggles as a journalist and then as an academic to understand the value of intelligent, thoughtful words put out into the public realm” – something that she herself has achieved.

She risks sentimentality everywhere
She begins with gatherings of “thought leaders” (Dakar and elsewhere), examines the role of public intellectuals, and quotes Thabo Mbeki on who is to set “the national agenda”. She goes back to Krog’s first published poems, when she was a teenager in Kroonstad, and notes those who supported the young writer and mentored her, especially the poet DJ Opperman.

Fifteen years ago, Leon de Kock wrote in a review of Krog’s Kleur Kom Nooit Alleen Nie: “She messes with proprieties, both sexual and political ... she refuses to give up ­trying to speak the voices of the land, she risks sentimentality everywhere, and she continues to be both publicly personal ... and very personally ­public.”

Krog’s earliest published poem (translated into English by Ronnie Kasrils) was republished in 1971 in Sechaba, the ANC publication in London, and read out by Ahmed Kathrada on his release from ­Robben Island in 1989.

Garman traces Krog’s early involvement with the ANC in Kroonstad to the 1980s when she wasa schoolteacher in the township, and then her move to Cape Town when she began to work in journalism. She became well known for her daily radio reports from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) hearings all over the country, using her married name, Antjie Samuel.

I knew one old National Party voter who had his mind changed by her, and at last began to understand what had been happening in this country. This was my father. Though loved by his many friends and family he, like so many South Africans, believed the rhetoric and propaganda about “total onslaught” and the virtues of separate development.

Mixing the personal with the political
With her English-language books, which grew out of her TRC reporting – Country of My Skull, Change of Tongue and Begging to Be Black –Krog’s readership and influence extended even further to an international audience.

At this time of demands for accelerated and genuine transformation, Krog’s contribution is important. Those who previously dismissed her are now being addressed by #RhodesMustFall, #OpenStellenbosch and others. Equally those who are in these (mainly) student movements might also benefit from reading her works, and certainly from reading Garman’s excellent overview of her contribution.

In the current debate around decolonisation and transformation much has been said about “affect” and the legitimacy of narrations of personal experience in argument. Garman shows how Krog insisted on combining the personal and the political. In her concluding passages she says: “A further point ... to be made about the nature of the post-apartheid public sphere is that it is permeated by performances of affect ...”

And later: “My work on Antjie Krog taught me to think of the South African public sphere as a particularity full of its own features … and to take seriously the idea that emotion is as legitimate an expression in the public domain as rationalisation – perhaps even more so, given the denial of humanity and intelligence built into our particular forms of rational discourse, which we employ not to listen but to control the direction of debate and to deflect the tough stuff.”

If our progress to harmonious coexistence seems to be three steps forward and two steps back, at least in the case of this book it is possible to be reinvigorated by the hopefulness and good faith of the past, while we all learn how to listen.

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